I like blogs where people discuss what they’ve been reading. Therefore:
I’m working my way through New Australian Stories, edited by Aviva Tuffield and published by Scribe of Melbourne. Tuffield is Scribe’s fiction acquisitions editor, and says in the Editor’s Note that this collection is to celebrate Scribe winning Small Publisher of the Year twice in the last three years. I must admit that I’m not familiar with their range (at least I’m not familiar with it as I type this – by the time I actually post this entry I’ll probably have looked them up) but this anthology is pleasing so far. A striking cover design and a good range of short stories – 35 all up, the majority of which have apparently not been in print before. I’ve been working my way through them at more or less one a day: they’re short enough that each one fits neatly into a lunch break. This is a good book to keep in your desk drawer and read over your sandwiches.
I’m five stories in at the moment. (Note that while I won’t give away twists that the stories depend on I’ll tend to talk about the full story arcs in ways you might want to skip if you’re strong on wanting to experience the unfolding plots for yourself.)
“Flexion” by Cate Kennedy
She stares blankly at the silhouette on the horizon for what seems like a long time before she realises it’s the huge rear wheel of the tractor she’s looking at, the vehicle tipped upside down like an abandoned toy. As she runs she kicks off her slippery town shoes and feels dry furrowed earth rising and falling and crumbling under her bare feet all the way to where he’s lying.
It’s the story of the wife of farmer Frank Slovak, but it’s his name we learn, right in the first sentence, never hers, and that’s important. This is the story of the long, chilly shadow that the fiercely closed and domineering Frank has cast over his wife’s life, and her first tentative attempts to live for herself when it seems that shadow might be lifting. Frank is away in the hospital, trying to force himself by sheer will to recover from the accident that somehow didn’t kill him, and his wife is managing their farm, feeling the sympathetic eyes of the neighbours on her, taking each piece of news from the hospital – the paralysis, the pneumonia – and trying to work out where it fits, what she does now. Each time she’s sure it’s time to start letting go of him, though, she finds her feelings are strangely mixed: she starts to see the shape of a life without him and it’s not all bad. And then she must work out what to make of her dismay each time Frank bulls his way through to another step of recovery and she must nod and smile while the doctors tell her how lucky she is. When he returns home, as fierce as ever but still a fragment of the man he was, she realises and shows some strength of her own, and then, on that first night…
Well, that’s something I think you should read for yourself. But there’s a certain story element that I love that I think of as “the Turn”, the moment that a character takes an action or gives us a revelation that grows smoothly and elegantly out of their movement through the story up until that point, even as it seems to reverse that motion or at least reverses how the reader has looked at it. “Both unexpected and inevitable” is how I’ve heard several different writers describe the ideal plot twist (or “plot development”, if you find “twist” a bit too gimmicky in its connotations). There are a couple of places I could see this story taking me as I read it – the Monday night movie would have made it a touching tale of survival with lots of soft-focus closeups, Roald Dahl would have made it a revenge piece driven by stripped-down cruelty (and in fact did a story rather like this with just that ending). Kennedy brings the story to a gentle, moving conclusion which I never saw coming. And after I had read it I couldn’t imagine the story ending any other way. Unexpected and inevitable. This is fine work.
“The Farmer’s New Machine” by Wayne Macauley
My head was starting to spin. I’d written nothing, all I had in my notebook was a crude, half-finished sketch of the macerator. The farmer was talking too quickly, my eyes still hadn’t adjusted properly to the light; all the vats, changers, tanks and pipes were rolling into one. Put your hand on that, said the farmer. He had his hand on the wall of the desiccator. I put my hand where he said; the steel was warm to the touch.
This is what the Turkey City Lexicon calls a “Steam-grommet factory” story, one built around a tour of a big complicated device. The usual use of the conceit is that a second, subtler story or piece of exposition is quietly unfurling behind the main action. My usual example is the tour of the human hatchery plant that Huxley uses to help set out the society of Brave New World, but now I have a second. The narrator is a reporter who’s come out to get a tour of the eponymous machine. We travel with him through a maze of machinery, guided by the farmer’s spare, functional explanations. He finishes the tour, he gets shown up to the farmer’s house, he admires the farmer’s green fields, he gets given a big box of vegetables to take home to the girlfriend. Lovely little afternoon in the country, no? Heh.
The second story is never told openly, and instead seeps slowly out from between the lines of the first one. Macauley lets you sit and wonder about the machine for pages, lets the characters chat about it from a clear knowledge of it that they don’t share with you. He lets you wonder why the journalist is having some of the thoughts he’s having, and he delicately slips some hints into place within the last couple of pages that slide together after you’ve emerged from the story and give you a little smile, or a little shiver, or both.
Macauley does a good job with the presentation of the machine – I’m no engineer but the farmer describing its mechanisms sounded very authentic to me, and his broader talk about farming and progress rang true to farmers I’ve met and heard. I admire Macauley’s control over his story, too: it felt perfectly paced, teasing with that long tour of the machine shed and shifting the story on to the hints at revelation about it at just the moment when the reader is itchy with curiosity but before that curiosity ticks over into impatience. I have had a moment or three of wondering about the actual plausibility of such a machine, when you get down to it, but I wonder if that comes of spending a lot of time in SF where there’s a mindset of picking that sort of thing to bits a little more. What that thought has led onto on each occasion is that I’m keen to get someone who doesn’t read much genre fiction to read this one, to see how it works on a reader without SF-tuned reactions.
That’s two. That’s also 1268 words, according to WordPress’ counter, so I’ll take pity on you and spread the rest out a bit. More to come.